He looks younger than he acts.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Marco Rubio, 2016's Young Fogey

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Senator Marco Rubio's autobiography, "An American Son," begins on Nov. 2, 2010 -- election night. The young state legislator had just won a resounding victory over a Democratic rival and a sitting Republican governor (who ran as an Independent), to be elected the junior senator from Florida. With a phalanx of reporters covering his hour of triumph, and a roomful of supporters cheering him on, Rubio, then only 39, delivered his victory speech, bringing his grinding, two-year, upstart campaign to a glorious conclusion.

As an avalanche of confetti poured over the room, marking his moment. Rubio took it all in. "It's funny how the mind works," he wrote. "All I could think of was how long it would take to clean it all up."

Rubio is a very talented politician -- smart, hard-working and easily commanding respect. He is also kind of a bummer -- dour, dutiful and repressed. 

It was Rubio the Bummer who this week mounted the barricades to demand the continued isolation of Cuba, an exhausted policy birthed many years before the senator himself. Rubio's determined embrace of a U.S. sanctions regime with roots in the Sputnik era casts him as a young man clinging to the woolly past of his elders.

A son of Cuban emigres, Rubio's anti-communist fervor no doubt comforts the aged, displaced Cubans of Miami, whose "trauma of exile -- disbelief, guilt, a sense of loss -- had shaped their lives and my own," he wrote in his autobiography.

But it must puzzle his peers. Senator Rand Paul, who is almost a decade older than Rubio, is striving to be the Republican ambassador to youth. He called normalizing relations with Cuba "probably a good idea." Rubio, who seems to cherish the role of favored grandson, called it "disgraceful."

“I’m committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as I can,” Rubio said Wednesday “I intend to use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel as many of these changes as possible."

The political calculation is not clear-cut. It's always good to be viewed by Republican voters as President Barack Obama's chief opponent on an issue. But most Americans don't share Rubio's passion for a tiny island of 11 million governed by a repressive, but otherwise easily ignored, regime. (Some Americans would very much like to build a hotel or two on Cuban beaches.) Today, Paul, who like Rubio is presumed to be angling toward a presidential run, directly attacked Rubio for making a pointless rearguard defense of a failed policy.

Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi International, a polling firm with deep experience surveying Hispanic communities, told the New York Times: “On the issue he thinks he’s most knowledgeable about, he runs the risk of being rendered dead wrong if this new approach accelerates change and democracy to Cuba.”

Rubio is unlikely to be proved wrong before Republicans choose a presidential nominee in 2016, in part because, Paul aside, Rubio and his Republican colleagues will do their best to sabotage Obama's normalization efforts. In any case, Rubio's posture as the oldest young man in the room suits the spiritual fatigue of aging Republican voters whose compass is forever fixed on the Reagan Revolution, the last time they did the jitterbug.

Rubio is too young to have attended that dance, but he seems eager to revive the beat. If Republicans want a happy warrior, they'll have to look to Paul or someone else. Rubio is running as a cold warrior. Even if he missed the Cold War. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net